As music journalists are compiling their top ten and best of lists, we asked a small group of Nashville writers to define the sound of the city's music scene over the last year.
We put the same question to NPR contributor Jewly Hight, Nashville hip hop blogger Keiarra Gross and Tennessean music and entertainment reporter Dave Paulson: What did Nashville sound like in 2016?
Tennessean Music and Entertainment Reporter Dave Paulson
Paulson says this year’s Grammy nominations brought a changing local landscape into focus for him.
Amongst the biggest names in pop music, there was outsider country artist Sturgill Simpson up for Album of the Year. The Nashville-based Simpson has been embraced more by indie and rock fans locally than the commercial country industry. Paulson says that’s indicative of a growing trend.
“A lot of the artists making waves on (the national) level had some sort of ties to country music traditions — be it Sturgill or Margo Price or Chris Stapleton, whose success carried over into this year.”
Paulson says, whereas 10 years ago locals might have been on the lookout for the next Kings of Leon or Be Your Own Pet, fans are now searching for the next Margo Price or Sturgill Simpson.
But Paulson also notes that quest for breakout status might not be the brass ring for Nashville’s rock and indie crowd that it once was.
He says there’s “less of a buzz about being discovered” in Nashville now especially for the music scene outside of commercial country. Paulson says he gets the impression that many artists are “very comfortable with the niches they have found and the spaces they have created for themselves.” He says even some of the local major label signings, including the electronic pop duo Cherub, have found considerable success despite remaining relatively low-key.
NPR Music Contributor Jewly Hight
Hight agreed with Paulson’s take on the roots music uprising in 2016 (which she further elaborates via her in-depth piece for NPR Music). She made special note in our conversation of new artist Maren Morris.
Hight says Morris is perfectly aligned with this particular moment in time, noting her seamless and contemporary mix of country and pop production and how “casually irreverent” Morris can be in her songwriting.
Hight went on to weave Morris’ music into a broader shift in the tone of voice being used by many Nashville singers across multiple genres over the last year (a trend she first noted for an NPR piece back in March).
She says that particularly other young female artists such as Becca Mancari and Ariel Bui are using a lower register approach which comes with a “different attitude.” Hight says their vocal delivery has a “deliberately deadpan, artfully sly, relaxed way.” She says it strikes her as especially different for a city that has featured many singers whose vocal attack was more “athletic.”
Keiarra Gross, writer for Nashville hip hop blog 2 L’s on A Cloud
Gross, a Fisk University graduate, says the theme this year for Nashville’s hip hop scene was “growth.” From the number of artists putting out new songs to the lyrics, artwork and videos that addressed Nashville’s booming expansion, Gross saw that trend reflected everywhere. But that growth did not come with a single defining sound.
She says when she listens to Nashville artists like Villz or Mike Floss or Black, she gets “different vibes.” Gross says that’s what she likes most about the scene - never feeling like you’re listening to the “same artist.”
While she was hesitant to label one artist or song the sound of Nashville hip hop in 2016, she did mention one performer who she says is poised for a big breakout next year — singer, songwriter and rapper Kiya Lacey.